Monday, 14 November 2011

What to look for in a Japanese Print - Part II

If one were to ask what makes a Japanese woodblock print special or valuable or rare, it would be hard to come up with a single, definitive answer. There are some common factors, of which condition is predominant, but there are many other factors of equal or greater importance. It would be pleasing to say that beauty or skill were paramount but sadly this is not always the case.

As with so many things, a final judgement on the 'worth' of a print is a mixture of many different factors. Balancing these contributions is quite subjective and will also vary from auction house to auction house and from collector to collector. Fashions change, rarity shifts with time and scholarship, consensus is affected by events - like a major retrospective at a national museum - which force scholars and collectors to reassess an artist or a movement. For example, throughout the nineteenth and most of the twentieth century, ukiyo-e collectors and commentators dismissed the work of the late Edo period as 'decadent', giving the greatest emphasis and scholarship to the 'classical period', ie prints from the the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries such as the drifting, sparse women of Utamaro and Haronobu. The works of Kuniyoshi were tolerated but widely dismissed for being vulgar. The work of Kunichika and Yoshitoshi was barely recognised right up until the late twentieth century. Happily, as contemporary scholars work to establish the reputations of these very great artists we can hope for a more balanced overview of Japanese art. Old habits linger however and the rarity, the age and the lingering sense of 'genius' mean that even a patchy Utamaro in very poor condition will command higher prices than a fine Kuniyoshi, despite evidence to the contrary.

So, what to look for. Condition remains paramount - within reason. It is pretty well impossible to find eighteenth century prints in pristine condition. The fugitive vegetable colours mean that even the best prints will have faded disastrously from their original state. The age of these prints means that greater handling and exposure will have had a major and detrimental effect. Even with highly collectible artists, if a print is torn, trimmed, scuffed, faded and creased its value will plummet to almost nothing. For nineteenth century artists it is preferable that the print be untrimmed or at least not trimmed into the image. This is more rare than most people imagine - the best preserved ukiyo prints were stored in albums and ironically these were trimmed to shape when they were bound. The crispness of the print is also important: the earlier in the edition, the sharper the lines on the wooden block will be and hence the sharper the lines andthe edges on the print. This is what is meant when dealers refer to 'early editions' and an early edition will also potentially have different colours and publishing information. In a series such as Yoshitoshi’s 32 Aspects of Women, the second edition without the three-colour cartouche (shown to the left) is worth less than half the value of the first edition with the three-colour cartouche (shown on the right). Sadly there are plenty of dealers on the internet who fail to specify late editions and charge early edition prices, snaring the unwary buyer.


Worse still are reprints - this is a particular problem with Hiroshige. Hiroshige was so popular during his life and following his death that the original blocks became worn beyond repair. For decades after his death, new blocks were carved by pasting an original print onto fresh timber and carving the image exactly through the paper making near identical copies. Whilst these were considered equally valid in Japan, in the West, with our different culture of authenticity, these prints have little or no value at all and yet are often sold as ‘original’ (for example on e-bay, where they are widely available, as shown to the left). It is wise to examine a small area of intense detail, mark for mark against a known example (such as the print to the right). Any deviation will indicate a late copy, as will the flatter and brighter colours and thicker paper.

It is important then, with all print artists, to get early editions, as little trimmed as possible and in the best condition possible - an example of a pristine print is the Kunichika shown to the bottom right. Some damage when working with fragile finite resources is inevitable. In general when collecting it is necessary to make a judgement of the value of a piece - its condition against its rarity and the beauty of the piece itself. An important, rare and beautiful print by Kuniyoshi will still be valuable even if it is slightly trimmed or has some damage. A minor print by Kunisada in poor condition - trimmed, and creased from a late edition will be worth comparatively little. In the end though it is down to the judgement and the preference of the individual. Collecting an entire series by a particular artist - Kuniyoshi’s ‘Treasury of the Loyal Retainers’ for example, will entail buying prints of widely varying quality over a long period of time and then up-trading periodically (selling on less good copies and substituting them with better editions) until a homogeneity is achieved.

At the end of the day, experience and personal preference is what distinguishes the purchases a collector makes. A little experience and some sensible caution are the basics, after that, the thrill of collecting is in the end the acquisition of a very personal knowledge about a very personal response to art. But do also beware of cheap deals and vague wording… the word ‘original’ is sometimes not enough.